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Tarset Fortified House

Case study: 180m east of Tarset Hall, Tarset, Northumberland NE48 1JY (North East)

List entry number: 1015528

Tarset Castle scheduled monument at risk, landslip on northern edge of the mound
The landslip on the northern edge of the castle mound above the Tarset Burn. Successive landslips have deposited material from the top of the castle mound to the foot of it.

Background and history

Tarset Castle is a fortified house situated on a steep sided promontory. It overlooks the Tarset Burn in the heart of the Northumberland borderlands.

From the 13th to the 17th centuries this was a particularly unstable place. This was due to intermittent wars with the Scots and endemic lawlessness and banditry. John Comyn was granted a licence to crenellate in 1267 (this allowed him to fortify his property and is the earliest surviving licence in Northumberland). The granting of this licence confirms the strategic importance of the site. It commanded fords across the North Tyne River and Tarset Burn.

John Comyn's son sided with the English and was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. After this, the Scots destroyed the castle.

A sketch of the house in 1773 shows a long narrow rectangular building. It had square turrets at each of the four corners and was surrounded by a wall. A substantial ditch was dug to defend the east and south sides of the promontory. The remaining two sides were bounded by steep banks, which may have been artificially scarped for added defence.

Today, the fortified house is largely visible as a grassed over mound. There is some standing masonry in the north-east and south-east corners. Very little is known about the surviving remains. However, some excavation in the 19th century revealed the plinth of a corner turret. 

Tarset Castle scheduled monument at risk, archaeological excavations
Archaeologist excavating some of the features on the top of the castle mound to get a better understanding of what remains of the castle structures

Is it at risk?

Yes. The Castle has been on the Heritage at Risk Register since 2009 due to erosion of the northern edge of the promontory.

A combination of river erosion and groundwater pressure is destabilising the upper levels of the castle mound, causing the mound to slide towards the river. A serious landslip occurred in the 19th century, resulting in the loss of 15 metres of the castle mound. Smaller scale erosion continues, with clear evidence of frequent slippages.

The 2013 engineer's report concluded that the continued failure will increase in the future. This will result in further loss of archaeological deposits.

Tarset Castle scheduled monument at risk, aerial view
The promontory and castle earthworks from the air showing the artificial ditch, landslip and work progressing in Tarset Burn

What's the current situation?

Geotechnical and engineering surveys have considered a number of options for stabilising the castle mound. No option provides any certainty of a long term solution. A number of archaeological evaluation trenches were excavated this year. These will help us understand the threatened archaeological deposits on the northern part of the site. The excavation was funded by Natural England through a Higher Level Stewardship scheme.

These trenches have helped to clarify the nature of the archaeology surviving in this area. They will inform a possible wider scheme of archaeological investigation.

At the same time works to help stabilise the river bank using 'low-tech' solutions are underway. Options from here are limited, but include:

  • undertaking the stabilisation works recommended by the engineers,
  • a limited archaeological excavation of the northern area of the castle before the deposits are lost, and 
  • full archaeological excavation of the monument.

Discussions continue with the owner to protect these vulnerable archaeological deposits.

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